His past is slipping into the future

After sitting out the last two Olympic Games, Al Oerter is throwing the discus again and aiming to add to his collection of gold medals
April 24, 1977

Al Oerter is wearing flared jeans and a flowered shirt as he arrives for a workout at C. W. Post College on Long Island. The clothes look good on him, but even if they didn't, it might be well not to say so. Oerter is 6'4" and 275 pounds, not the sort of man you should anger. Fortunately, Oerter also is a gentle soul.

Yes, he's having a workout. Not merely a bit of exercise to keep a 40-year-old body from getting flabby, but a genuine, full-scale, Moscow-here-I-come workout. Having won four gold medals in the discus in four successive Olympics—1956 to 1968—Al Oerter has climbed down from Mount Olympus and is going for a fifth in 1980.

Considering the places in which he has competed—Melbourne, Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City, among them—C. W. Post seems a quiet spot to prepare for such an assault, but Oerter lives just a few miles down the road in West Islip with his two teen-age daughters. Changing into shorts, T shirt and running shoes, Oerter jams his jeans and flowered shirt into a canvas bag and heads for a distant field where members of the Post track team are unlimbering. The day is unseasonably hot, in the upper 80s. "Good for an old man," Oerter says. "You pull muscles when it's cold."

He makes a quick stop at his bright red Fiat, puts the canvas bag away and produces a pair of discuses. "I have to get these two at a time," he says. "After a year they begin to chip. Oh, I suppose if I were throwing on some nice soft grass in California they would last longer, but the frozen ground here in the East chips them."

Oerter casually scales one of the discuses 100 feet, then jogs after it. Walking back, he tosses it overhead several times, catching it as easily as most men would a silver dollar. After stretching exercises, he joins the Post athletes at a cage where they are tossing the hammer, shot and discus. If they are awed by the massive four-time gold-medal winner, they do not show it; but then Oerter has become a familiar figure on campus. For his part, Oerter tries not to impose himself upon the young weight men. Only once during his workout will he make a critical remark, and then it is done quietly to their coach, Al Dawson. "The kid is dissipating all that energy," Oerter says. "Scared or fouling or something."

When it is his turn to throw, Oerter stands for a few moments at the back of the cage, well behind the throwing circle. He is contemplating his motion. Ideally, if the soles of his shoes were painted, leaving footprints in the ring on his first throw, the second would produce exactly the same set of footprints. Entering the ring, Oerter turns his back to the field, then launches into a crouched windup, spinning 1½ times and releasing the discus. Out it sails, twice as far as anybody else is throwing anything at C. W. Post this day.

And now, warmed up, Oerter takes a towel and places it on a chalk stripe 200 feet from the ring. "I like to have a goal," he says, "even in practice." His first toss lands just short, but the second carries over the towel by a couple of feet. On this warm day on Long Island, Al Oerter, age 40, has just thrown the discus farther than he did when he won gold medals in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo. It is a feat he attributes to improved technique and a carefully controlled diet that has replaced the piles of mashed potatoes he used to eat to build up his body. Still his throw is some 30 feet short of Mac Wilkins' world record, but Al Oerter has never cared about world records. He has always been an Olympics man.

Because Oerter has been out of competition since early 1969, a brief reminder of his heroics is in order. In none of his four Olympics was he the favorite, nor was he the reigning world-record holder, yet each time he set an Olympic record. His weight grew from 235 pounds in Melbourne in 1956 to 295 in Mexico City in 1968. He was the first man to throw the discus 200 feet. His winning throws in the Olympics ranged steadily upward from 184'11" in Melbourne to 212'6" in Mexico City. It is noteworthy that when Ludvik Danek of Czechoslovakia won the discus in 1972 in Munich, his distance was more than a foot short of Oerter's 1968 mark. (Danek was 35 at the time. The 1948 Olympic champion, Adolfo Consolini, got off his best throw when he was a month shy of 39. Former world-record holder Fortune Gordien was still a world-class competitor at 37, and Jay Silvester competed in the Montreal Olympics at 38. There is ample precedence for excelling in the discus at an advanced age.)

"There is something about the Games that gets in your blood," Oerter has said. "All those people from those various nations, all with the same purpose. The crowds, the training, the competition, the pressure. I know it may sound dumb, but I can really get charged up about the Olympics."

He also had the ability to psych out his opponents. In 1968 Silvester was the world-record holder (224'5") and he was exceeding 200 feet with almost every throw. One day in Mexico City, Silvester, who is from Utah, showed Oerter a good-luck telegram.

"It is signed by almost everybody in my hometown of Orem," said Silvester. "All 400 of them."

"Four hundred?" said Oerter. "Can't be much of a town." Silvester finished fifth that year.

Tokyo may have been Oerter's most dramatic victory. Two years before, in 1962, he had pinched a nerve in his neck that immobilized his left side when he tried to throw. Three doctors told him to call it quits, but Oerter and another doctor had a horse collar built out of foam rubber and plastic, and Al went on throwing. In Tokyo, six days before he competed, Oerter slipped in a wet ring and tore cartilage loose from his rib cage. Again doctors advised him not to throw and again Oerter declined. Shot full of novocaine, taped like a mummy and unable to lie down between throws because of the pain, Oerter got off the winner on his next-to-last attempt, an effort that brought him to his knees in agony. "I thought my ribs would fall off," he said at the time. "The pain was so rough it destroyed all my feelings for competition for a long time afterward."

Mexico City was not much better. A week before his event, Oerter pulled the adductor muscle high on the inside of his right thigh. "It's the worst thing that can happen to a discus thrower," he says. "I couldn't make an involuntary left turn."

He also had to contend with a chronic cervical disc injury, but he refused to wear his collar because it hampered his throwing. The day of the discus competition dawned sunny, but a heavy rain postponed the event until late in the afternoon. After two throws Oerter was in third place. But on his next toss—with what Silvester once described as "that freight train right arm"—he blasted one out 212'6", more than five feet farther than he had ever thrown before. Oerter had won his event for an unprecedented fourth time.

Shortly after Mexico City he called it quits. Too much pain, too much pressure, most of it brought on by his own demands on himself. "I think the best thing for me to do is to slide out of this gracefully," he said. He was 33, he had a wife, two daughters and a job at Grumman Aircraft as data communications manager. He jogged, he skied, he went boating and he played tennis. His weight dropped to 240. Some people figured he would unretire just before the Munich Olympics, but he never gave it a thought. He even declined an invitation to attend the Games as the U.S. Olympic Committee's guest. "I'll watch the fool event on television," he said. "I'll probably get so wound up I'll start training for '76."

This year Oerter and his wife were divorced. "It was perfectly amicable," he says. "She's an artist and has her own studio. She wanted to get a better idea of her own self." Al's daughters, Crystiana, now 18, and Gabrielle, 15, remained with their father.

In late 1975 Oerter became involved with Bud Greenspan's televised series The Olympiad. One segment was "The Incredible Five," of which Al was one, along with distance runners Emil Zatopek and Paavo Nurmi, sprinter-hurdler Fanny Blankers-Koen and gymnast Vera Caslavska. Watching films of past Olympics—crowds cheering, flags waving, athletes performing—Oerter felt the juices bubbling.

Then one February evening in 1976, while having dinner in New York with Greenspan and members of his staff, Oerter said, "Bud, I'm very taken by what you're doing...."

"Well, we're very taken by what you're doing for us," Greenspan interrupted.

"What I mean," said Oerter, "is that maybe I'll try to do what I said I'd do in Melbourne. I want to try for a fifth gold medal."

Greenspan was elated and decided immediately to film Oerter's comeback. The next day Al phoned him. "I've been thinking about all the money this is going to cost you," he said. "What if I don't win?"

"You let me worry about that," said an amused Greenspan. "You just train."

Oerter began. It was too late to be ready for Montreal, and a long time before Moscow, but it wasn't easy. He pulled several muscles and broke his right ankle. His diet now consists of raw protein mixed with such things as a blended drink of honey, raw eggs, yeast and orange juice, plus meal bread and fresh vegetables and brown rice. He throws four times a week at Post. Two times a week he drives to the nearby home of John Boos, a former Mr. World, who has a weight room in his cellar. "That's for upper-body work," says Oerter. For lower-body work he goes to a health club near his home in Hicksville. As a result his weight is approaching championship level and his jacket size has increased from 46 to 52.

"The idea is to convert strength to throwing power," he says. "I'm getting there."

Two weeks ago Oerter won the discus at the Post Relays with a toss of 199'8". This week he will be at Kansas, his alma mater—he was Wilt Chamberlain's classmate—for the Kansas Relays, where the discus throw is named in his honor. This summer he is hoping to take his daughters to Sweden for the World Masters meet, although he fears the competition will not be testing enough. Chances are he will not come up against Mac Wilkins, the current Olympic champion and world-record holder at 232'6", until next year.

"I only have positive feelings about the man and what he's done," Wilkins says of Oerter. "At his age he's probing new frontiers on what the human body is capable of doing. It will be interesting to see what happens. I still think, however, that Al is throwing the discus primarily for the enjoyment of throwing, while keeping the door open for competition."

That's the way Oerter wants it. "I hope Mac keeps me back there on a recreational basis all the way to Moscow," he says. Oerter introduced himself to Wilkins at last winter's AAU indoor meet in New York. "We just said hello," Al says. "I should have been wearing the T shirt a very special friend gave to me. It has Moscow GOLD written on it."

Sitting in the football bleachers at Post after his workout, sweat pouring from his brow, Oerter ponders why he is subjecting his 40-year-old body to such rigors. It is not for glory—he has certainly experienced that—nor is it for Greenspan's film or for his daughters, who were too young to appreciate his earlier triumphs. Quite simply, he is coming back because he missed throwing the discus the way others might miss playing golf or tennis.

"I love the movement of the toss itself," he says. "The purity of it. It's very much like a dancer's motion. Now I have a greater awareness of what I'm doing in the throwing ring than I did when I was younger."

Then Al Oerter stands and stretches his great Goliath-like body. "It's good to feel strong again, too."

TWO PHOTOSLast week, 40-year-old Oerter threw farther in workouts than 19-year-old Oerter (below) did in Melbourne when he won his first Olympic title.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)